August 02, 2020
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For Fresh Air In The Thought Balloons

For India to take to Sonia, Mona Lisa must smile—and talk, and listen

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For Fresh Air In The Thought Balloons

The hand is made of white cloth, and is more than fifty feet high. Someone has inflated it with hot air, plumping out its fingers thickly; and the breeze—cool, dizzying, ripe with the last rites of the monsoon—is making it sway in the air. It is surreal: the giant waving hand against a darkening sky, dwarfing the thousands packing the ground, tense with anticipation at one of the last rallies of an irritatingly stretched election. Not only is the maidan packed into the road and beyond, there are people—young, old, men, women, children—clamped elbow-to-elbow on the circling houses, and perched with prehensile ease on peepul trees. Sonia Maino Gandhi will descend from the heavens, and though all that’s coming down for the moment are gusts of rain, Amethi’s every eye is scanning the horizons.

But before the mechanical dragonflies appear and thrill the crowd, a bad omen runs the ground. There is a volley of shouts, and as everyone turns to look, a kick of breeze rips the hand off its tethering ropes, and in slow motion sends it keeling on the crowd. The cries of fear prove misplaced, and die down quickly: the air drained, the hand is harmless, flaccid cloth. On the public address system, someone urges the creator of the hand to pack up and put away his deflated handiwork. Then the air trembles, three choppers appear, banking teasingly over the crowd, and one throat ten-thousand strong sends up the cry, Sonia Gandhi zindabad!

The rally is a roaring success. Much like another I witness in Farrukkhabad a week earlier. There is a charge in the air. Sonia is aggressive. The crowd is responsive. The body language has changed since last year. She reaches out to the people, marching forward briskly to press flesh, even as the safari-suited spg scramble like traders at the stock exchange. Her Hindi is vastly improved too. She still reads from a paper, but the accent is less of a hammer blow. The kindergarten parroting has become high school elocution.

The content too has changed. The pitch is no longer purely emotional. She doesn’t whine on about the sacrifices of the family, Rajiv, Indira, Jawaharlal. She talks realpolitik, issues currently live in the public domain. Kargil, sugar imports, religious intolerance, instability. The crowd cheers. Occasionally she slips into a monotone; then rouses herself. The lapse is understandable. She’s been doing this day after day, often four to five times a day, helihopping across the country, displaying a purposefulness and stamina no one ever suspected. It’s her cross. She is the Congress party’s only national vote-catcher.

But now that she’s landed a turkey instead of the tiger she set out to tame, where does she go from here? And where does the party? Has she been undone by her foreign origins, or by a desiccated Congress, long on tradition and short on sap? Should she keep taking Hindi lessons and wrestling with the party in the belief that she can shepherd them back to power, or is she better off quietly retreating into the splendour of her private domain, orchestrating archival Nehru-Gandhi material and running the many institutions of the family tree? Is this election a wake-up call, or the exit buzzer?

Endless questions are Sonia’s reward for the sheer audacity of her ambition—a foreigner trying to rule a billion Indians. True ambition must put in its years of tears and sweat. Tears, she has. The sweat only began a year ago. Her time will come, if she can stay the course, and keep learning. Of course the Congress will not dump her. It is aware it may have done even worse were it not for her. And anyway, the Congressman is a feckless creature, rooted in inertia, waiting for someone to drive him into power (whence he instantly comes into his own). For fifty years it’s been the Nehru-Gandhis. It’s the only formula he knows; and is too lazy to even work at discovering another.

There is no doubt, the Nehru-Gandhi name Sonia carries is a bazooka, but in a chaotic, fracturing polity, she needs to widen her arsenal, acquire the smaller firearms that will cover her flanks and allow her to wage a long war. There are those who say that in her case the family bazooka is a dud, neutralised by her Italian origins. But that seems essentially to be a discussion of metropolitan living rooms. In the countryside, where people carry no passports, the issue lacks any real purchase. It has something to do with the politics of charisma, which is a strange thing, allowing of no clinical dissection, no rational analysis. And this election she has shown traces of it, packing in audiences everywhere, displaying the first signs of enjoying mass adulation.

Leaders must not only speak well, but hear well too. That’s the scary part of the Sonia story. Who does she listen to? Who has her ear? How does she arrive at her decisions? So far the evidence suggests a dodgy communications network. Good data processing means nothing if the data is bad. Arjun Singh, Fotedar, Pranab Mukherjee, Oscar Fernandes, Ghulam Nabi Azad. Men who can no longer win elections; men who can no longer read the lie of the land; men whose survival depends on continually conjuring up some desperate spin when some straight fast-bowling may be the answer; courtiers whose paranoid theories keep them in the palace; quacks who prescribe placebos in the hope they’ll work. So Sonia pulls down a government without having the numbers to make her own. So Sonia alienates Sharad Pawar rather than honourably assimilating him. So Sonia breaks bread with Laloo and Jayalalitha, and plays kiss and run with Bansi Lal. So Sonia scuttles to Bellary like a fugitive on the lam.

Leaders who become victims of their coteries are first the victims of their own insecurities. They need a sheet of people between them and the people. Rajiv Gandhi when he first came on the scene was full of guileless self-confidence, his positive energies plugged directly into the people. Then as the headache of governance, the trauma of hard decisions began, with its attendant self-doubts, he withdrew behind a coterie. The people between him and the people then let him down; by the time he discovered the truth and began to cut away the phalanx hemming him in, it was for him, unfortunately, too late. Before him, his mother Indira Gandhi did that and deluded herself into the Emergency. Sonia has only to read her own family history to learn her lessons. If she needs a bridge to the people she would dare to govern, she should find it in those who are plugged into the people. There are leaders who venture out each year, face the people, and come back with their approval. Rajesh Pilot, Kamal Nath, Madhavrao Scindia, Digvijay Singh, and of course the absurdly estranged Sharad Pawar. They are young—well, relatively—and have a stake in fashioning a future. These men, and more like them, should be her lifeline. Straight or crooked is of no consequence. Connected, is what matters.

Sitaram Kesri was pensioned off last year, perhaps a little impolitely. Many more of his ilk and vintage are ripe for superannuation. Someone, perhaps Sonia, should be dictating their letters now.

The party is not the only pipeline to the people. There is also the media. If she will bid to govern a billion people, they have a right to know what she stands for, what her opinion and position on each issue is, what moves her and revolts her. She should be answerable to the people. It is the first item of the pact that is sealed with the folding of the ballot paper. Her reluctance to put her cards on the table can be seen by some as augmenting her enigmatic aura, and it is true that the Indian masses have often been seduced by stupid pomp and privilege rather than candour and earthiness. But that is slowly changing, and the hold of feudal highhandedness is clearly on the wane. Mona Lisa should smile. And talk. There are many among us who need to be reassured.

On a magical day—low gray thunderclouds, the light in soft focus, the green paddy fields lapping against the road, the air washed and sharp—on a magical day, Priyanka Vadra stands by a country road in Amethi, languidly talking to a couple of journalists. She has charisma, clarity, and a fix on the problem facing her mother’s party. In a word, lack of organisation. Two weeks of camping in Amethi have taught her that winning elections goes beyond charismatic rallies. It’s also about mobilising voters, manning booths, keeping the depredations of others in check. The bjp cadres are oiled and purring; the Congress is a dilapidated machine, many nuts and bolts missing, incapable of clanking into action. Much of it has to do with the disillusionment of its youth members—any party’s cutting edge—who have neither ideology nor growth avenues to motivate them and bind them together. A cursory conversation with some of them reveals that they are sick of having the scions of Congress heavyweights thrust on them as instant leaders while they sweat it out in the trenches.

Sonia has a future. Brighter than that of most of India. Anyone could write her a prescription. Glean the fogeys. Patronise men of the masses. Galvanise the young. Be unafraid to align. Welcome Sharad Pawar back. Talk, don’t hide. And be unafraid to declare your ambition—and ideally make it to rule the party and not the nation. The last honour too may well end up at your doorstep. Leave it to that lanky girl with the easy smile and common touch last seen meandering through the dusty roads of Amethi, steering her Italian mother to a stunning win.

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